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The American River: Kayak it

Editor's note: When The Bee's Sam Stanton volunteered to offer advice to beginning kayakers, we didn't hesitate to put this package together. That's because he's an avid paddler who plies the American River at various locations and different times of year. Read our story, view our video and give kayaking a go.

You know you want to.

You've watched with envy as those kayakers glide down the American River on a hot summer day.

But you still haven't tried it? Didn't know how to get started or where to launch from?

Your worries are over. Just in time for the long Fourth of July weekend, here's a how-to guide to running the American below Lake Natoma. This isn't meant for experts. It's for anyone who can swim, has some common sense and wants to take advantage of one of the region's finest attractions.

Let's get started.

The basics

Don't be an idiot. Wear a life jacket. Seriously. There isn't a more important thing to know about kayaking here. It may look shallow and slow and safe. It isn't. There are strong currents, deep holes and tricky spots all along it. Get a life jacket. Put it on.

Get a kayak. There are plenty of options out there, rentals, used boats, inflatables, the ones you sit inside, the ones you sit on top of. Decide which one suits you best.

The sit-upons are easier to crawl back on top of if you fall in. The ones you sit inside of protect you from the water better and can be used year-round, even in winter. You can find a kayak and paddle starting around $200.

Check the weight of the boat before you buy. Make sure you can lift it. And sit inside it, to be certain you're comfortable with the size.

Unless you plan some expert paddling and serious whitewater, avoid the small boats that require knowledge of how to roll yourself upright if you flip. The bigger boats allow you to fall out into the water. It happens.

Take some lessons. Remember to hold on to your paddle or use a tether, and get back into the boat. If the water's too deep, hold on to the boat and float along with your feet in front of you until it's shallow enough to get back in.

Then, hit the water. All you really need after that is some sunscreen, a hat and sturdy water shoes or old sneakers to protect your feet from the rocks. Take a garbage bag, too, and put your trash in it. Do us all a favor and pick up some of the litter others have left behind. You won't have trouble finding any.

If you're a beginner, start out slowly and practice in calm water. Lake Natoma is ideal. Then, find a friend, drop one vehicle where you plan to end your ride, and drive back up to your favorite starting point. Keep those car keys in a dry bag and get rid of anything else that you don't want to get wet.

The easy way

Once you're ready, there are about 21 miles of river to enjoy from Sailor Bar, downstream from Nimbus Dam, to Discovery Park where the American River joins the Sacramento. The two-mile stretch from Sailor Bar to Sunrise Boulevard is ideal for a gentle ride. It's picturesque and it's less crowded than other spots downriver.

A second option is between the Harrington Drive access point in Carmichael (or the Gristmill access point if you're coming from the other side of the river) and Howe Avenue. This 3 1/2-mile stretch is calm and wide, and there are plenty of beaches for picnics, islands for bird watching or spots to stop and look for turtles sunning themselves on logs. It's calm from Howe all the way down to Discovery Park, but that's a long ride, about 8 1/2 miles.

The main drag

If you're looking for company, start out at Sunrise Boulevard. This is where most of the rafters put in, and it gets crowded, especially near the El Manto access point. The water is also trickier there as you head downstream toward Suicide Bend, where the water picks up speed and swirls unpredictably. Rafts float over these areas easily, but a kayak can flip in this water.

If you're going through, paddle constantly and keep the boat straight to avoid flipping. Don't overcompensate or panic. If you're not sure, paddle over to the left side, get out and carry the boat downstream to calmer water.

Just below this area is the most challenging section, the San Juan Rapids. Even if you know what you're doing, this water is tricky. The day we shot video for this story, two men went through and flipped, lost their boat and made it to shore only because they had life jackets on.

This is an excellent spot to avoid unless you're experienced. Get out before you reach the rapids on the left side of the river and carry your boat around it.

Below the San Juans to River Bend Park (formerly Goethe) you'll find mostly calm water and lots of spots to rest. There are beaches, trash cans and restrooms at Ancil Hoffman Park and at River Bend, where many rafters end their rides.

The Arden Rapids

If you're going farther, the Arden Rapids await you just past the bicycle bridge that connects River Bend to the William B. Pond Recreation Area. These are not as challenging as the San Juan Rapids, but they require some expertise. There are huge rocks that are often exposed. Many people wear helmets going through, because this is an easy place to flip.

If you want to avoid them, take a sharp right turn just past the bridge and you'll find yourself in a spot called the Race Track. Here, the river winds around islands and pops you out in a calm stretch full of beaches before you rejoin the main river. Some of the turns are sharp, and there are submerged trees to watch for.

If you're not sure about making these turns or running the Arden Rapids, head to the far left of the river after the bike bridge. The water is shallow and you'll probably have to walk, but it's an easy way around the rougher spots.

The details

The easiest access to the river is at various county parks. The entry fee for vehicles is $5, plus $2.50 for each kayak. Annual vehicle passes for $50 are a better deal for regular visitors. Vehicle/ kayak annual passes are $75. Detailed maps are available for $1 from county parks.